Fairfield suspends social media policy after receiving letter from ACLU

Posted Sept. 15, 2013, at 6:25 a.m.

FAIRFIELD, Maine — The Fairfield Town Council suspended a controversial social media policy a day after it received a letter from the the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine urging that the policy be repealed.

“We are definitely happy that they are taking our concern seriously,” Oamshri Amarasingham, ACLU of Maine public policy counsel, said Friday. “We’re hopeful their council will revise it or suspend it permanently.”

In a 4-1 vote during Wednesday’s regularly scheduled meeting, the Fairfield Town Council suspended the social media policy so the town’s legal counsel could review it.

“I think it was a prudent thing to do,” Fairfield Town Manager Joshua Reny said Friday.

In a four-page letter written by Amarasingham, the ACLU of Maine called the policy “overbroad” and said it violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of town employees.

“The town’s prohibition of any Internet speech that casts a negative light on the town authorizes punishment of a substantial amount of protected speech and is therefore unconstitutionally overbroad,” she wrote in her letter to Reny.

The policy prohibits town employees from posting information on social media sites that “would impair working relationships of the Town of Fairfield for which loyalty and confidentiality are important, impede the performance of duties, impair discipline and harmony among coworkers, or negatively affect the public perception of the Town of Fairfield and its departments.”

It also prohibits employees from using speech “containing obscene or sexually explicit language, images, or acts and statements or other forms of speech that ridicule, malign, disparage, or otherwise express bias against any race, any religion or any protected class of individuals.”

Reny said he expects the town’s legal counsel to report to the Town Council in about a month.

The council seemed concerned about the points brought up by the ACLU of Maine, said Reny.

“Most felt that, ‘If there is an issue, we want to make sure we’re completely compliant with the law. It wouldn’t hurt anything if it was temporarily suspended,’” he said.

The policy went into effect in early July.

Reny said many towns have policies regarding its employees using social media. Amarasingham said the ACLU of Maine is not currently reviewing other towns with similar policies.

“If other towns have similar policies, we’ll look at and review them,” she said. “We can’t look at every policy as it’s being passed around the state.”

The ACLU of Maine became aware of Fairfield’s policy after a Morning Sentinel reporter obtained a copy of the policy and requested the organization take a look at it.

“The reporter forwarded it to us and asked us if we had thoughts and indeed we did,” said Amarasingham.

Peter Nielsen, Oakland town manager and president of the Maine Municipal Association, said MMA doesn’t write social media policies for towns, but it does encourage them to examine the issue.

Social media “is an emerging area. We’ll address them as best as we can,” said Nielsen, adding that Oakland does not have a social media policy. “Whatever Fairfield learns from this experience will be a general benefit to all of us.”

Reny said that the majority of the employees he spoke with supported the policy when it went into effect. However, not all were happy, he said.

“I heard through the grapevine that some were upset. They called it heavy-handed or unnecessary,” said Reny. “There were no formal complaints, just rumors. We received no complaints from unions or anything like that.”

Once the Fairfield Town Council hears back from the town’s attorney, the council may “reinstate the policy, amend it, abandon it or whatever the recommendations are,” he said.

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